Four Visits

I hear her high heels tapping down the polished hallway.  She had an intermediary call me to ask if I knew of any people in need; I mentioned a longtime colleague, retired and alone now, with some serious health problems.  There was, the intermediary said, someone who wanted to help a person just like that this Christmas.  That someone would stop by with an envelope, and she would be grateful if I would just address and mail it.

It was an easy task to agree to do.

I am thinking this must be a seasoned benefactor…someone comfortably settled, perhaps with children established and in no need of mama’s money.  But the heels belong to a young person who is far from rich. She is, though, smart, clever, and thoroughly professional; she and her husband came unexpectedly into a tidy sum, and they decided to split it. Half goes to someone he found who is in need, the other half to someone she identifies: that’s their Christmas gift to each other.

She hands me a thick envelope with a name etched on it; her joy at perpetrating this unacknowledged act of giving is boundless.  She swears me to secrecy, wishes me a merry Christmas, and taps away.

I address and stamp the envelope and slide it into the mailbox across the street.

********

Ducking her head, eyes hidden beneath a long bang, she hands out hand-folded boxes to each of the board members.  Open them! she urges. We do, and are amazed at the painted ornaments–with snow-covered pine trees, fat red cardinals perched on snow-dusted branches, beaming Santas and frolicking snowmen, rigid nutcrackers and graceful ballerinas, gracing their tender, curved glass sides.

We gasp; they are exquisite.  She laughs delightedly.  She grasps her hands and bobs a bow.  She is so proud.

She is a recovering addict become an artist, someone who wanted to say thank you to the board that okays the funds that support the program she first went through and now works for.  She teaches others, now, to paint; she donates paintings to be auctioned off to raise funds for the program.  She has worked through a long, bad tunnel, and she has emerged into the light.

Beet-red, triumphant, she slides out of the conference room, waving a merry Christmas to all.

**********

We gather around the table–eight old friends missing two more who are at a different gathering that day,–two who are mourning a loved one lost too soon.  The candles glow, Keith invokes a warm and personal grace, and we tuck into herbed rolled pork, potato pancakes and applesauce, crusty homemade bread, a savory slaw, and Larry-made pies.  It is a meal as delicious and unique as the home in which we gather.

The long table sits on polished concrete floors; whitewashed beams gleam high above us.  This was once a gas station; it now is Kay and Brian’s home, with a sleeping space defined by walls cleverly constructed of three-deep packing pallets strung with twinkle lights. The kitchen is a tiny marvel of high-tech efficiency, the bathroom small and snug and wonderful.

Kay has her studio; her paintings enliven the walls of the whole space–new paintings, larger, growing evermore strong and bold, like her amazing and constantly maturing talent. Brian has his work-space.  Together, they have stories to tell of mishaps and triumphs, but it has been worth the trek: their vision of this extraordinary home-space is realized.

Kay and Brain live at a midpoint; after that wonderful meal and a chance to really visit, we reluctantly move outside.  No parking problems in a former service station: we linger by the cars. We listen to the gentle burble of the fountain Brian constructed, and which is, in this oddly warm winter, unhindered by ice.  Finally, with hugs and plans to meet again in 2016, with shouts of “Merry Christmas!” we climb in our cars and pull out, headed north, south, and west, into the darkness, strengthened by the rekindling of that friendly warmth.

**********

Jeff is the counselor who organized and oversaw a wonderful program Jim took part in several years ago.  Jeff keeps everyone connected with email updates and invitations to reunions and notices about who’s graduated, who’s gotten a job, and who might need a little support.  This week he emails that a young man from the program is alone this Christmas.  He wonders if anyone would like to spend an hour or two helping the boy celebrate.

I mention it to Mark and Jim, and both of them, without hesitation, say, “Of course.”  Tight-throated and misty, I email Jeff to confirm.

We pack up cookies, write out a card, grab a game, and bundle into Mark’s car for the ride to the city at 11:30 or so on Christmas day.  We arrive at the boy’s house just a shade early; he is standing out front, tall, bearded, and gangly limbed–sort of Abe-Lincoln-y–yelling into a cell phone.  We park and approach and he looks at us, a little frightened, and yells into the phone that he has to go, there are PEOPLE here!

Jeff pulls up at that moment and we usher into a small, tidy apartment, with sparse furniture, white walls, and hardwood floors.  There is a little fabric tree; there is one present underneath it.  Jeff, Mark, and Jim lug in folding chairs.  Our host pulls chicken nuggets and french fries from the freezer; we locate one baking sheet and make chicken and potatoes share.  Jeff produces a veggie lasagna; he figures out the intricacies of the oven.

People start to pile in, three more families with kids from the program.  The table groans with drinks and cookies and fudge and a frosted cake–turns out, it’s not just Christmas: our young host has a birthday today, too. A pile of presents grows beneath the tree. The kids talk about Star Wars and superheroes and debate DC versus Marvel; a young artist passes around her cell phone to share her truly incredible artwork.  A young guitarist shows us his band’s professional calling card.  The food is hot; people grab plates,and our host sits in the place of honor, munching and beaming.

This was a group of strangers for mere moments.  Now we pass presents to the birthday guy; we take pictures; we cheer and exclaim.  Excited, he runs upstairs to change into a brand new shirt and, when he emerges, he gets a round of applause.  We eat cake and those frozen ice cream cones with the tops dipped in chocolate and nuts.  Jeff tries to get some singing going, but the attempt crashes and burns amid laughter and groans.

In the kitchen, gathering up, Mark and I talk with a young man (call him Matt) who’s a staff member, someone who works shifts in this little apartment so the birthday guy can successfully live on his own.  Matt tells us he’s actually off-shift, but he couldn’t stand the thought that our guy would be alone on the holiday–on his BIRTHDAY.  Jeff, Matt says, is amazing; this was probably one of the best Christmas-birthdays his young charge has ever had.

Jim shakes a lot of hands; the young people trade info; they promise to write and email and keep in touch.  We all take information about a zoo-lights expedition coming up the day after New Year’s. We part with hugs and laughter and hopes to see each other soon.  The ride home takes less than an hour; in 90 minutes, the oven is heated and the rib roast is scenting the house. The roads were great, the trip was no big deal–but the gathering was pretty major for a young guy who expected only to be alone.

***********
Such gifts this holiday season: of generosity, of artistry, of creation, of gathering and goodness.  Dark falls shortly after we arrive home, but it’s no threat. There is light.  In this season of darkness, I know there is light, there is warmth, and there is great, great hope.

Ah, Happy Feast of St. Nick!

Blessing the children from photobucket.com/st%20niholas#1

Blessing the children from photobucket.com/st%20nicholas#1

December 6th is, most places, celebrated as the feast of St. Nicholas. Maybe there’s something to be learned from a saint dead yea, these 16 centuries.

In my own experience, St. Nicholas was a capricious kind of saint.

Some years, on December 5th, my mother would remind us: “Put your shoes by the fireplace!” The next morning we’d get up, and there would be a little something there–a game, a coloring book, and maybe some foil covered chocolate coins (wrapped securely in plastic—we were often directed to find them on the side board–to protect them both from the prowling dog and from the stinky insides of the well-worn shoes.)

Other years, the day would slide by and somewhere around December 15th, someone would say, “Hey, isn’t St. Nicholas Day around now sometime?”

“Hmm,” my mother would say.  “You must not have been very good this year.”

I could always, as a child, find enough guilt in my hidden thoughts to explain the saint’s missed visit.  Only later did I imagine my harried mother, having said her prayers, climbing into bed just before midnight on December 5th, the house finally neatened and quiet.  I picture her just getting settled down…then bolting upright to say, “Oh, BALLS! [That was her favorite cuss word; I often wonder what exactly she thought was expressing when she used it.] St. Nicholas Day is tomorrow.”

And my half-asleep father would rumble, “Ahhh, don’t worry about it.  They’ve been little yi-yi’s, anyway.”

The years St. Nick DID come though, it was kind of a mini-miracle, the better, I think, because it was one that could not be depended upon.

At Catholic school, we learned about the saint, intrigued by some blood-soaked legends. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor, in the fourth century.  He is, Wikipedia informs me, the patron saint not just of children, but also of coopers, sailors, fishermen, merchants, broadcasters, the falsely accused, repentant thieves, pharmacists, archers, and pawnbrokers.  Quite an assembly for kids to be hanging out with–no wonder we loved the guy!

St. Nicholas also had many miracles to his credit.  Most famously, he saved three daughters of a poor family from what the nuns described as spinster-hood by tossing sacks of dowry gold down their chimney one night.  The chimney tossing is explained as either the saint’s personal modesty or his discretion–an anonymous gift is harder to refuse, after all, than face-to-face charity.  Legend variously has it that the girls had left their shoes by the fire and the money fell into the shoes, or that they’d hung their socks to dry from the mantel.  One of the flying money bags, it is said, slipped smack down a stocking, stretching out the toe.

The kindly gesture explains the tradition in some countries of putting shoes by the fire, and in our own country, of hanging stockings, on Christmas Eve. And good St. Nick, of course, morphed over many long years into Santa Claus.

I only read later,—the nuns never mentioned this particular wrinkle—, that, had the three poor virgins NOT gotten the dowries, they might have been forced into lives of prostitution, the only available work for unmarried women of the day.

So that was a very nice miracle, with very nice traditions growing from it, but there was a different miracle story we all clamored for in the second grade classroom at St. Joe’s. I remember it as the story of a traveller staying at an inn owned by an unscrupulous butcher.  In the night, the butcher attacked the man, chopped him up, and put the pieces in the pickle barrel.  The next day, St. Nicholas came to call, and asked about the missing visitor.  The butcher was all unknowing innocence, but, at a few words from the Saint, the traveller jumped from the pickle barrel, intact and unharmed. Woe to the greedy butcher!

When I looked the story up to get the details straight in my mind, I was surprised to find that the most common versions have the butcher chopping up either three children or three clerks.  The children went into the pickle barrels, but the clerks, on the advice of Mrs. Butcher, were baked into meat pies.  But again, a visit from the Saint, the power of prayer: victims restored, butcher’s guilt established.

What a horrible tale to tell children!  How we loved it! In the early ’60’s, in my Catholic school, saints and martyrs were our rock stars.  We reveled in their ultimate and gory sacrifices.

One of the churches we visited occasionally had a statue of Saint Lucy with her luminous face raised to heaven. [We’d go there  for the later Saturday confessions when we missed 3:00 confession at our own church.  I hated confessing there, because the priest gave whole decades of the rosary as penance. My brothers would taunt me–What did YOU do?  It took you half an hour to say your penance!  But they were only done faster because they went first…and then they abbreviated.]   She was holding a plate on which her eyeballs rested.

One of the reasons it took me so long to say my penance was that I knelt and stared at those glassy eyeballs.  The story was that Lucy, determined to live a virginal life as a bride of Christ, removed her eyes to give to a suitor who’d admired them.  An extreme  interpretation of “If your eye offend you, pluck it out,” for certain.

But I digress: St. Nicholas. When Jim and Matt were little, and when I remembered, I got them usually-banned sugary cereal as a special St. Nicholas Day treat–Christmas Lucky Charms, maybe, or red and green colored Cap’n Crunch.  Or sometimes, when I happened upon them in the store, I’d surprise the boys with those foil wrapped coins on the morning of December 6th.  We never made a big deal out of it, never left shoes by the fireplace; there was no disappointment when the Saint didn’t visit.

That was fun and low-key and a nice way to honor the Saint’s gifting tradition.

Revisiting the story, though, I am drawn by the saint’s anonymous distribution of dowry funds; his method of helping was one that enabled the parents to be the benefactors of their daughters’ good luck.  I like the dignity given to the family in need.

Several years ago, in a different town, at a different church, we were involved in a wonderful project the youth group put together. We shopped for an unknown family every Christmas. We put together a meal and gifts based on information from the family’s adults, who then were able to pick it all up and put it under their tree, serve it at their own table.  That’s how it should be–no strangers’ expectant faces waiting to be properly thanked; just a warm and loving, I hope, family holiday.

Hmm. Maybe there’s a way, this year, in this town, to toss a bag or two down an unsuspecting chimney.

So, anyway. Happy St. Nicholas Day!  Whether you put out shoes, hang stockings, or go through your day unhampered by the fact that the Bishop of Myra had it named for him 16 centuries ago or so, I hope this season of light brings lots of little miracles your way.

May we be miracles for each other during the darkness, too.